Nicky Henderson's horses are in such rude health that the trainer probably considers it downright unseemly. Over the years, he has dependably refrained from pushing them too hard, too soon, always with the Cheltenham Festival in mind. This time round, they have been in frightening fettle throughout. Given his candid neurosis over the process, nobody will be more frightened than Henderson himself. Another treble at Kempton yesterday doubtless prompted dread that they cannot possibly hold their form for another six weeks.
Curiously, Willie Mullins has been experiencing something similar in Ireland, where his horses have been two months ahead of their usual cycle. In fairness, Henderson blamed the defeat of Punchestowns at Cheltenham last Saturday on a looser training regime, and predicts that a fitter horse will return for the Ladbrokes World Hurdle in March. And most of the heavy artillery has already been wheeled behind the lines: Binocular is being kept fresh for the Smurfit Champion Hurdle, for instance, while he is tempted by a similar approach with Zaynar, favourite for the JCB Triumph Hurdle.
His Festival team gained some fresh ordnance at Kempton, where the debut success of Ainama prompted Ladbrokes to identify him, at 10-1, as the leading home candidate – against the Mullins pair, Hurricane Fly and Cousin Vinny – for the Anglo Irish Bank Supreme Novices' Hurdle. Ainama made a lasting impression on Henderson when winning easily under Jamie Spencer on the Flat, and a deal was done by JP McManus to transfer him from Michael Wigham's care. Sent off odds on for a novices' hurdle yesterday, he beat the very smart Flat horse, Hebridean, by three lengths under Tony McCoy, the pair well clear. "I kept watching him on television," Henderson recalled. "And Jamie rode him like a really good horse, even taking a pull halfway up the straight at Chester."
This patrician Englishman might not be the most obvious of partners for McManus, but there is no denying that he is getting more results, more quickly, than many of the other trainers who benefit from the fidelity of the softly spoken Irish gambler. Another new association for the stable, with Barry Geraghty, has also proved a success, and the jockey continued his fine start at Seven Barrows by winning the first and last races on Riverside Theatre (in the colours of the actor, James Nesbitt) and General Miller respectively.
Both are young horses with a future, but for once Henderson is not making a priority of Cheltenham. "That wasn't his ground," he said of Riverside Theatre. "And I am sure he will be very nice. He's going to be even better when he is stronger, and I had half a mind to put him away after this. I'm not sure. I don't want to use him up."
There was no such equivocation over General Miller, the bumper winner. "There's no way he'll go to Cheltenham," he declared. "But they're three nice young horses, and it's been a good day at the office."
McCoy also completed a double, in the McManus silks, when Pop Ahead won a handicap chase for Jonjo O'Neill. He is now just three short of another unprecedented landmark, 3,000 National Hunt winners, and it was obvious why to O'Neill. "You saw why he's so good there," he said. "The horse wasn't great over the first couple of fences, but he just got him jumping as sweet as a nut. It was poetry in motion."
It has been a productive winter for O'Neill, as well, but regrettably the same cannot be said of Victor Dartnall. He rates Lodge Lane as potentially the best he has trained, but had shut down his Devon stable for five weeks prior to running him in the novices' chase. Lodge Lane gave a dispiriting display, pulled up behind Or Jaune – whose trainer and rider, Gary and Jamie Moore, testified to their own good form by following up with Fix The Rib.Reuse content